When my phone rang the other day, it was a call from one of the "walking wounded," not unlike many that I have received during the years I have been interacting with the bereaved. I have often spoken with people who are feeling much like this caller was.
The gentleman's adult son had died in an accident, and when I innocently asked how old his son was, he bristled and told me the question offended him. He said it didn't matter how old the person was who died; the question created barriers and suggested different degrees of grieving. (I know that can be true, especially when the very young or the very elderly die.)
I apologized and explained that I hadn't meant it that way. My intention had been to open the door to conversation, to invite him to speak freely about his son if he wanted to, without any pressure to do so if he were uncomfortable.
When we are newly bereaved, and sometimes even a long time into our grief, we often find ourselves thrashing about emotionally. In frenetic efforts to escape some of our pain, we may react blindly, wildly, irrationally. We sometimes say and do things that may be embarrassing to us later. But we need make no apologies, ever, for our emotional reactions to suffering that is so unimaginable.
We, the bereaved, are desperately trying to tell those who would comfort us what we need and how to help us. The trouble is that often we haven't figured out what we need, and we don't know what will help us. Therefore, we may be giving them one message on Monday and a different message on Thursday.
We need to be careful to soften our responses to our potential caregivers. We need to realize that compassion is a two-way street. If we ever expect to educate the non-bereaved population, we need to do it gently and tactfully, always remembering our own ineptness before we became bereaved!
Perhaps the gentleman's response could have been along these lines: "Thank you for asking about my son, I love to talk about him. Of course age is really irrelevant because death at any age is devastating..." Then he could have gone on to tell me about his son in any detail he wanted. We both would have felt good about the conversation, and I would have been smarter the next time.
We say, "Be there with us; let us talk; don't avoid us. We want to talk about our loved ones. We want you to mention their names." Then we say, "You always say the wrong thing."
Well, often our comforters and caregivers do say the wrong things. But, bless their hearts; at least they're trying to say something. At least the ones who are talking with us aren't ignoring us or avoiding us. Until enlightenment about grief and mourning becomes more widespread, they will continue to need our help in education, understanding and compassion. It seems to me that what we need is a lot more non-threatening, non-judgmental dialogue and communication. Perhaps attempts from both sides toward more understanding and tolerance of the other side would go a long way toward breaking some barriers.
All of us are here on the planet for such a relatively short time, and we're all struggling with the same basics: a need to be loved, a need for approval, a need to not be lonely. I've been around for a good while now, and it seems to me that the best way to get what we need is to give it away first. It doesn't always work, of course, but it works often enough to make trying it a good idea.
Good Grief Resources (http://www.goodgriefresources.com) was conceived and founded by Andrea Gambill whose 17-year-old daughter died in 1976. Almost thirty years of experience in leading grief support gropus, writing, editing, and founding a national grief-support magazine has provided valuable insights into the unique needs of the bereaved and their caregivers and wide access to many excellent resources. The primary goal of Good Grief Resources is to connect the bereaved and their caregivers with as many bereavement support resources as possible in one, efficient and easy-to-use website directory.